Preserving Fertility During Cancer Treatment
- Alicia Harris, of Tampa Bay, Florida, was diagnosed with cancer after doctors found a lump in her breast during a routine pregnancy checkup.
- The mom of three, who gave birth to a healthy baby girl in February of this year after undergoing radiation therapy with PreciseRT, a targeted treatment that limits radiation exposure, is now encouraging others to maintain hope amid a cancer diagnosis.
- If you are having a cancer treatment that includes infertility as a possible side effect, your doctor won’t be able to tell you for sure whether you will have this side effect. That’s why you should discuss your options for fertility preservation before starting treatment.
Now, the mom and realtor from Tampa Bay, Florida, has opened up about getting diagnosed with cancer when she was just four months pregnant with her daughter and undergoing radiation therapy with PreciseRT, a targeted treatment that limits radiation exposure.Read More
Despite receiving her cancer diagnosis amid pregnancy, Alicia remained positive and insisted in footage shared on social media that cancer would “not bring me down.”
“We were in a situation, we were like, ‘Hey what are we going to do?’ Can’t really do surgery right now, the baby, anesthesia risk, etc,” said Oncologist & Hematologist Dr. Luiz Marconcini of BayCare Health System, where Alicia received treatment.
“So should we consider doing chemotherapy beforehand? Luckily, the data shows that in breast cancer and being pregnant, it is actually pretty well tolerated,” Dr. Marconcini added.
After Alicia’s doctor found a lump in her breast, a biopsy was done and later confirmed she had cancer. Next, Alicia made an appointment with Breast Oncology Surgeon Dr. Robert Gabordi of St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospitals.
Within six weeks of the mom’s diagnosis, Dr. Gabordi performed a lumpectomy and Alicia underwent two rounds of chemotherapy with Dr. Marconcini.
“I had both of my older kids at St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital, and I was very insistent that I didn’t want to get treatment at any other hospital,” Alicia told Bay Care. “I feel comfortable with how BayCare and St. Joseph’s operate.”
Despite Alicia’s fears, she trusted Dr. Marconcini’s treatment plan and reassurance that her baby would be born healthy.
After she gave birth to her daughter, she underwent two more chemo sessions and radiation therapy at the St. Joseph’s Hospital Cancer Institute, where she was one of the first patients to undergo targeted radiation from a new device. Now, she’s cancer-free.
“Alicia’s journey through her cancer treatment and pregnancy was remarkable and handled with grace,” Dr. Garboni said. “Seeing her hold her newborn in her arms cancer free is one of my proudest moments in my professional career.”
Alicia, who also has two sons and ended up naming her daughter Journi, took to Instagram a few weeks ago to encourage others to stay hopeful and acknowledge all that they’ve gone through.
“It’s been 1 year since I was diagnosed with breast cancer while I was 4 months pregnant. Don’t forget to look back, and recognize how far you have come. You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control the way that you handle it,” she wrote.
“Never be ashamed of a scar. It simply means you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you. Thankful to God for all that he has done and will continue to do for me and my family! ”
Although Alicia is now cancer free, she will continue taking medication for 10 years to prevent the disease from returning, as well as getting annual mammograms and checkups every six months.
Preserving Fertility After a Cancer Diagnosis
For many women diagnosed with cancer, the question of whether a pregnancy is still possible is at the front of their minds.
“When a woman is diagnosed with cancer in her childbearing years, fertility preservation should be a part of the conversation, like it’s part of the treatment plan,” Dr. Jaime Knopman, a board-certified reproductive endocrinologist with years of experience treating couples and individuals experiencing infertility, told SurvivorNet in an earlier interview. “Everyone in their reproductive years should be advised of their options.”
Dr. Knopman previously explained. “Women who go on to get pregnant after having a diagnosis of cancer do not seem to have a higher rate of recurrence than women who did not have a pregnancy.
“They sometimes call this the healthy mother effect, meaning if you were healthy enough to go on to get pregnant, then you may have not been in the same situation as someone who is not as healthy and couldn’t go on to get pregnant,” she added.
How Cancer Treatment Can Affect Fertility
For many younger women facing cancer, it is important to know that treatment can threaten your fertility, so you may wish to plan ahead if becoming a mother one day is important to you.
Unfortunately, some types of chemotherapy can destroy eggs in your ovaries. This can make it impossible or difficult to get pregnant later. Whether or not chemotherapy makes you infertile depends on the type of drug and your age—since your egg supply decreases with age.
“The risk is greater the older you are,” said Dr. Knopman. “If you’re 39 and you get chemo that’s toxic to the ovaries, it’s most likely to make you menopausal. But, if you’re 29, your ovaries may recover because they have a higher baseline supply.”
Radiation to the pelvis can also destroy eggs. It can damage the uterus, too. Surgery on your ovaries or uterus can hurt fertility as well.
If you are having a treatment that includes infertility as a possible side effect, your doctor won’t be able to tell you for sure whether you will have this side effect. That’s why you should discuss your options for fertility preservation before starting treatment.
Research shows that women who have fertility preservation prior to breast cancer treatment, in particular, are more than twice as likely to give birth after treatment than those who don’t take fertility-preserving measures.
Dr. Terri Woodard, director of the onco-fertility program at MD Anderson Cancer Center, previously told SurvivorNet, “The standard of care options for fertility preservation for women would be egg or embryo freezing, and I believe that there are pros and cons to each.”
You’ll have to weigh the options with your doctor. Embryo freezing has been the standard of care for many years. Dr. Woodard says that this is because, frankly, doctors are really good at it at this point. Egg freezing is a newer option, though most clinics do offer this option today as well.
How to Screen for Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is typically detected via a mammogram, the screening method for this type of cancer. Mammograms look for lumps in the breast tissue and early signs of breast cancer.
Women aged 45 to 54 with an average risk of breast cancer (i.e. no family history of the disease) should have mammograms annually. Dr. Connie Lehman, the chief of the Breast Imaging Division at Massachusetts General Hospital, says in an earlier interview, “If you haven’t gone through menopause yet, I think it’s very important that you have a mammogram every year.”
“We know that cancers grow more rapidly in our younger patients, and having that annual mammogram can be lifesaving,” says Dr. Lehman. “After menopause, it may be perfectly acceptable to reduce that frequency to every two years. But what I’m most concerned about is the women who haven’t been in for a mammogram for two, three, or four years, those women that have never had a mammogram. We all agree regular screening mammography saves lives.”
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff